Lightning Review

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel


The Glass Universe

by Dava Sobel

The Glass Universe is the story of the women who worked for the Harvard Observatory from the mid-1800’s though the 1940’s. Like the women of Hidden Figures, these women were known as “human computers”. Under the leadership of Professor Edward Pickering, and later Harlow Shapley, these women catalogued the locations, relative brightness, and distances of stars. In the process, they discovered new stars and nebulas, created a classification system, and paved the way for the discovery that the universe is expanding.

Stylistically, The Glass Universe is the opposite of Hidden Figures, the book and movie about the African American women who worked as human computers for NASA. Hidden Figures keeps a tight focus on a small group of women. While it talks about their scientific work, the focus is on their lives.

The Glass Universe describes the scientific events that took place at Harvard Observatory in considerable detail, covering a large expanse of time. This means that while the book does a good job of demonstrating the number of women who contributed, and how and what they accomplished, it’s short on nuanced character descriptions of individual women. Even the women who are given specific page time, including Williamina Fleming, Annie Cannon, and Henrietta Leavitt, remain professionally recognized but personally enigmatic.

This book is a great resource for readers with an interest in women in science. The pictures alone are delightful. Just beware that the focus is on science rather than on biography. Annie Cannon, who was the only woman at an international forum on astronomy in 1913, may have the last word:

They sat at a long table, these men of many nations, and I was the only woman. Since I have done almost all the world’s work in this one branch, it was necessary for me to do most of the talking.

Carrie S

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.

The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.

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